A good Euroleague season is over, for Milan. Not a one for the ages, in terms of titles won, but the 2013-14 campaign will be remembered for good reason. This is when Olimpia came back among the Top teams in Europe.
Milan’s fans waited 17 years before the team reached Euroleague’s quarterfinals. No matter if they were eliminated by Maccabi. My point is: gotta get there, gotta get consistent. One day, you’ll have all the right pieces to get it done and take the trophy. Not now.Embed from Getty Images
There are a few reasons. First, injuries: we cannot forget that EA7 played without forward Alessandro Gentile (class of ’92), who averaged 16.2 points in his last 4 Euroleague games. He was in his prime when he got injured against Cantù, and eventually missed the following weeks of competition. We cannot forget that Keith Langford came back from an injury a few days before the playoffs, after being sidelined for one month.
Then, David Blatt tactics (and his players’ execution) showed why Milan may belong to the Top 8 but not to the Top 4. They missed the experience to win game-1. They missed quick “game readers”, good passers and shooters to overcome struggles in game-3. They missed any offensive options in game-4, leaving all the responsibility to Langford (who did great before being exhausted), cutting all the big men out of the competition. Talking about defense, Ricky Hickman and Tyrese Rice destroyed them driving to the basket. And no one could even try to guard Big Sofo inside: for instance, EA7 won game-2, when Sofo played only 1’47 due to an injury).
Now, the team has to complete their work: winning the domestic title the club is waiting since 1996. But with all due respect to this, Euroleague Basketball is where the best teams and players are looking at. So, now that Milan is back on track, what will they do this summer?
Will they keep looking at “hungry” players (they mean: the best combination available of age, skills and € or $) or will they keep the best players they have and rebuild a system to plan reaching the Final Four within 1-2 seasons?Embed from Getty Images
We all heard about Keith Langford and his Turkish passport case: he’s earning big money in Milan, and he is free agent. What to do with him? He just won the Alphonso Ford Trophy which proves is individual value. The team is trying not to spend big money anymore on a player. Will they bet on continuity re-signing Langford to play a third season in a row in Milan? Or will they keep their money to invest it somewhere else? This will be a first, strategic, important decision to make.
Will Daniel Hackett be the starting point guard returning to Euroleague? If so, has he proved he can run a team to the Euroleague championship level? The answer, for what we’ve seen in Tel Aviv, is no. After game-3 he said: “I have to do a better job to guide my teammates”. In game-4, he didn’t. But two games won’t define his career. We have to wait a full season in Milan, with enormous expectations on him. Then we’ll know 100%.
Point guards: Hackett-Jerrells a good pair? Not to reach the highest level, probably. None of them is a natural playmaker in the “traditional” meaning. But a top Euroleague team need this, togheter with a natural born long range shooter, a tough, experienced and consistent big man to give his team a chance against aggressive set defenses and try to stop big bodies on the other end.
What about the rest of perimeter? All said about Langford, Gentile will be back unless the NBA is not drafting him high. Cerella is a great teammate, has a good body to put him for some defensive plays, but he’s not a Euroleague top caliber player. Langford or not, they will need a scorer. Maybe a scoring point guard, sharing his position (and the court) with Hackett, and a “Jaycee Carroll lookalike” guard.
One of the big problems of this season came from the power forward position: Milan signed CJ Wallace to buy his experience (two Final Four with Barcelona), his basketball IQ (Princeton), his personality (one of the funniest guys in the planet) and his “stretch-four” skills to be the most important player in this position. He’s having a disappointing season on many levels. And that increased Nicolò Melli’s duties. The 22 years old man played some consistent game but still miss “that” consistency to be a reliable starter at this level. Maybe it will come with experience, after all. Maybe he’s still dealing with the expectations he had on him since he was a teenager. He’s a free agent: last year he didn’t reached a deal with the team to extend his contract. We’ll see. What about Kristjan Kangur? He suffered a long injury, struggled in finding his own position in the team. Never been a major player, indeed.Embed from Getty Images
Centers: when the team signed Samardo Samuels to a two-years deal, there was a lot of cricitism. However, the big boy from Jamaica showed that he has top level skills. Needs to be tougher, but he has a great upside. Good move for now, let’s see how much he’s improving. But you need another type of center behind him. Gani Lawal is an unbelievable athlete, but he struggled all the year with Luca Banchi’s defensive system. And he’s not a great offensive player. That’s why his teammates almost ignore him down low. He never gets the ball back to the basket. Never. This is a problem not only because he’s not scoring: the team should need someone who can catch the ball forcing the defense to pay attention on him, leaving space on the perimeter. And someone who can “read” the game in defense, most of all.
I disagree with those (in Italy) that are criticizing the team for being out of he Final Four. Yes, it will be played in Milan. Yes, Maccabi is not that strong if you compare it to Real Madrid or CSKA on paper. But it doesn’t mean that a team that no one expected to be at this level HAS to win or it’s a screwup.
All that said, that step the team have to make from Euroleague Top 8 to Top 4 is one of the most difficult in basketball. That’s why EA7’s offseason will be very, very interesting.